Why Japanese Women Traveling to Hawaii are Being Turned Away

Why Japanese Women Traveling to Hawaii are Being Turned Away

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Turned back from America
Picture: freeangle / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
An increasing number of Japanese women are finding it harder to enter the US and are getting turned back at the border. Learn why.

With international travel once again A Thing, more people from Japan are traveling abroad. Unfortunately, some young Japanese women who try and take vacations to the United States – especially solo – are finding themselves turned back at the border.

Enticement to travel to Hawaii

Picture: tabiphoto / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

As we’ve written before, Japan has the world’s strongest passport, allowing visa-free travel to up to 190 countries. Sadly, only about 25% of Japanese citizens possess one. Many either don’t care to travel abroad or, if they do, feel they can’t afford it.

Still, before 2020, a lot of Japanese people traveled abroad. 2019 saw the most outbound tourism ever, at 20 million people.

Where does Japan go when it holidays abroad? The leader by far is the United States – which, for this purpose, includes territories such as nearby Guam, the Marianas, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

The majority of those travelers are headed to Hawaii, the favored destination of over half of the travelers to the US in 2019. In 2019, between January and September, some 1.17 million Japanese citizens made the trek. In 2023, only 380,000 have made the trip during the same period.

To encourage more vacationers from Japan, the US and Japan are discussing an expedited immigration process specifically for those entering Hawaii. If approved, Japanese travelers could clear immigration and customs in Japan. They could then go straight to the baggage claim once they land on the islands. However, this plan is still in the early discussion phases.

An immediate flight home

But just because the occupation government of Hawaii wants more visitors doesn’t mean it wants all visitors. A spike in global prostitution has US Customs and Border Patrol agents questioning some traveler’s motives. In several cases, the women are prevented from even entering The United States.


The story broke in Japanese local media two months ago. A 32yo social media influencer from Osaka tried to enter Hawaii for what she says was a simple vacation. But US authorities pulled her into a separate room and subjected her to 27 hours of questioning.

The woman told Asahi TV News that border agents questioned her repeatedly about what she did for work. They even drilled into why she was carrying so many clothes with her. The woman maintained it was so she could take pictures – which only strengthened the cops’ suspicions she was there for work.

In the end, the agents told her that she wasn’t allowed to enter the US on an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) visa. She was forced to return to Japan the next day without ever stepping foot out of the airport.

Asahi’s depiction of a woman without a return ticket being denied entry to the United States. (Picture: Asahi News Network)

Another woman in her 30s says border agents questioned her for three hours. They only allowed her to enter after they’d searched her luggage and found the business card of a female friend in Hawaii, who vouched for the woman.

“If I didn’t have that,” she said, “I’m 100% certain I’d have been forcibly sent back. I was truly scared.”

Sex workers in Japan look for fortune abroad

Why does the US think so many women are attempting to enter the country for purposes of prostitution? Well, because…they are.

The weak yen is pushing many in Japan to consider whether their talents would be better compensated elsewhere. Young Japanese people especially are increasingly seeking work opportunities outside the country(called 出稼ぎ, dekasegi, “travel earning”). This often entails obtaining a working holiday visa to countries like Australia, where they can spend a year earning more than they could in Japan.

Japan’s sex workers are also finding they can earn more abroad than they do in their own country. Asahi interviewed one 35-year-old woman who has a long career in Japan’s soaplands and “delivery health” (hotel sex work) industries. She now uses tourist visas to spend a month at a time in countries like the US, meeting people she’s scheduled appointments with via social media and sugar baby sites.

The risk of such work is high – both legally and from a standpoint of personal safety. But the rewards are big. The 35-year-old woman said she can earn up to $20,000 in a single month. Another industry worker, an agent who schedules clients for workers, says the women who work with him can earn up to 4 million yen ($27,000). A few women can even earn up to 10 million yen ($66,838).

By contrast, in Japan, most sex workers can only expect to make between 50,000 and 80,000 yen ($334 – $534) a day. For those in the profession, it’s an offer almost too good to refuse.

A wave of sex workers from Asia?

Man and woman in silhouette with a flurry of yen falling between them
Picture: hellohello / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

United States officials claim the enhanced scrutiny is necessary to combat a wave of prostitution coming from Japan and other Asian countries. (Prostitution is illegal almost everywhere in the US except parts of Nevada.) Recently, the Department of Justice reported that it busted an Asian brothel network in Massachusetts and Virginia. The DOJ says the ring catered to wealthy clients, including tech industry leaders and politicians.

(Don’t worry – nothing will happen to them. Only the women ever get punished, you see.)

The agent interviewed by Asahi TV says he’s seen the impact on his business. He says border agents are apt to stop women traveling alone who wear brand clothing. The lack of a return ticket or hotel reservation are also red flags.

In the agent’s case, he had one worker turned away because, when asked by agents if she had a boyfriend, she blurted out, “My boyfriend’s a host.” In another case, a woman working in Canada was refused entry to the US because she didn’t have a return ticket.

Border agents also perform thorough – even invasive investigations, he said. This includes looking at the entrant’s smartphone pictures and even searching their LINE for keywords like “host.”

The women caught in the crossfire

From the US perspective, law enforcement likely believes they’re putting a dent in human trafficking – a real and serious problem. The US Department of State estimates between 14,500 and 17,500 people from outside of the US are victims of human trafficking every year.

That’s probably small comfort to the Japanese women who find themselves accused erroneously. The influencer from Osaka says she was “shocked” to learn she’d been mistaken for a sex worker.

The agent sounded chagrined when asked about these cases and apologized to the falsely accused.

“We more or less understood the risks of being caught when we entered this profession,” he said.

What to read next


ハワイに日本人女性“入国拒否”急増…“海外出稼ぎ”増加 業者を直撃【詳細版】. Asahi TV News

「1カ月300万円稼げる」 35歳女性が入国審査をくぐり“海外出稼ぎ”を繰り返す理由. Asahi AeroDOT

日本人が多く訪問している国・地域. Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs

ハワイ“入国審査” 日本国内で行えるよう入管と協議 日本人観光客の回復を目指し. FNN Prime Online

US says prostitution ring counted politicians, tech execs, lawyers as clients. Reuters

Human Trafficking: Modern Enslavement of Immigrant Women in the United States. American Civil Liberties Union

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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